Challenge of Change in the Middle East

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

Patrick Buchanan is one of those few writers I never like to miss.  Having worked as a senior advisor to three US presidents, Buchanan has had a rare, ringside view of history.  Six of his 10 books including The Death of the West, Where the Right Went Wrong, and more recently, Suicide of a Superpower have been New York Times bestsellers.  I like Buchanan’s writings for their unsparing, sweeping view of history. He tries to divine the future in the light of the past. 

Despite being an old-fashioned Conservative, he has his feet on the ground. He was one of those few voices on the right that attacked America’s indefensible wars.  In his latest piece in the American Conservative, Buchanan argues that the biggest winner this year is Islam. In the article titled, Second Period of Islamic Power, Buchanan says:

“From Morocco to Pakistan, a great awakening is occurring. The most dramatic example of Islam rising again came in Egypt, with the fall of the 60-year-old military dictatorship. The West hailed the coming of democracy but democracy delivered a rude shock. In the first round of voting, over 60 percent of ballots were for the Muslim Brotherhood or the radical Islamist Nour Party. In the second round, 75 percent voted Islamist. In Tunis and Tripoli, too, the overthrow of autocrats revealed a silent majority sympathetic to Islamism.”

Buchanan talks of an alarming “Islamist awakening” around the world, from China’s largest province Xinjiang that was once part of the Ottoman caliphate to Russia’s simmering Muslim regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia.  He rues the fact that in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are in retreat and “Islamists are celebrating our eviction.” The Conservative pundit is alarmed by the growing Muslim numbers around the world, including in Europe, pointing out that Islam has already overtaken Catholics as the world’s biggest religion with 48 UN member states now boasting a Muslim majority.  “If demography is destiny, the future would seem to belong to Islam,” concludes the two-time Republican presidential hopeful. 

While these observations are familiar and need no elaboration, what really interests me is the subsequent question raised by Buchanan.  That is, can this Islamic resurgence sustain itself without an intellectual and political infrastructure and real tangible steps underpinning it? “Take away oil and gas, and from Algeria to Iran these nations would have little to offer the world,” he points out questioning if Islamism really owns the future of Muslim world. 

It’s not possible to dispute Buchanan’s facts of course. While the Muslims have never had it so good in economic terms with enormous financial and natural resources being at their disposal, their contribution and leadership on the world stage is indeed limited.  Not one university from a Muslim country figures in the top 50 or 100–strange for a people who set up the world’s first university.  Not one Muslim nation is part of the top 10 economic powers.  The entire Muslim world put together cannot hold a candle to countries like China, Japan or South Korea in industrial production. 

This is the reality today no matter how we choose to explain it in socio-political and historical terms. Even Islam’s detractors including Buchanan acknowledge that the Islamic civilization ruled the roost for a thousand years, from 7th to 17th century, and had been far ahead of the rest of the world in many ways. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution was built on the scientific advances and groundwork done by the Muslims. But that was the past.  What about today and what about tomorrow?  You cannot go on living in the past and rest on your laurels forever.  Of course, I don’t share Buchanan’s skepticism about the Arab Spring and the future of Islamic world.  The juggernaut of change on the march across the Middle East is the best thing to have happened in a long, long time and it’s unstoppable.

After decades and centuries of tyranny and colonial exploitation, the people are finally taking charge of their destiny.  The stunning victories of the Islamists, from Egypt to Tunisia to Morocco, that have horrified the West and its allies shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone.  People are only returning to their natural self, repressed and shackled as it was all these years.  Religion may have been banished in the West but it remains an essential part and the heart and soul of Muslim societies. Look at the decisive mandate Egyptian and Tunisian Islamists have received. This is a vote for change and a rejection of all those ideas and individuals superimposed on the Middle East all these years. However, while these winds of change across the region have created an extraordinary opportunity for the Islamists, they have also generated great expectations and incurable hopes.  History would be most unforgiving of those who flunk this opportunity.  People are desperate for change and a change for the better. And the Middle East’s new crop of leaders cannot afford to let them down. 

There’s no dearth of naysayers and Cassandras out there, including those who have aided and perpetuated the status quo all these years, waiting with bated breath for the Islamists to crash or make a fool of themselves.  They have persuaded themselves that this blessed season of change is too good to last.  Doubtless, these are testing times. One reckless step could undo all the good work.  

The belief that Islam offers all the answers is not just a construct and conviction of the Islamists.  It’s the unshakable belief of an overwhelming majority. However, this isn’t enough.  You have to build intellectual and political institutions and infrastructure, and equally important, evolve public opinion to support the utopia inspired by Islam. 

The much cited example of Turkey’s Islamists led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, easily the tallest leader since Ataturk, is indeed most invigorating. Even Youssef al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Islamic scholar named by many Arabs and Islamists as a spiritual guide for their revolutions, is all praise for the Turkish model.  But it took decades of hard work for Turkey to get where it finds itself today.  The country that acts as a bridge between the East and West literally has blended Islamic ideals and values with pragmatism and demands of a fast changing world.  

Turkey today isn’t just a vibrant, modern nation proud of its beliefs and identity, it’s marching with confidence on all fronts.  Even in these troubled times, it has maintained the amazing pace of its economic growth.   More important, the country that under the Ottomans led the Muslim world for centuries has demonstrated how Islam could be uplifting and liberating and beautiful in practice.  There are invaluable lessons for Arabs in Turkey, the first Muslim country to support those demanding freedom from tyranny, from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria. 

Meanwhile there’s bad news for all those hoping of the Arab Spring turning into an endless winter for the Middle East.  The Arab Spring is here to stay and it looks like it’s not just going to change the Middle East but the world beyond–from New York to Moscow to New Delhi. 

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf based writer. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com.

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